Photo by Jose L. Argueta/ISIphotos.com
By AVI CREDITOR
WASHINGTON — Joe Willis was well aware of the early-season opportunity that could come knocking at his door, and now that moment has arrived.
With starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid slated to miss D.C. United's next three matches due to CONCACAF Olympic qualifying and potentially a handful more this summer should the United States U-23s secure an Olympic berth, the spotlight shines bright on Willis, a second-year pro who emerged as a quality backup during his rookie season.
"There's definitely some responsibility on my shoulders now, and I'm excited about it," Willis said. "I'm ready."
Hamid's whirlwind of an offseason, which included stops at West Brom, senior national team camp and U-23 camp, gave way for the unheralded Willis to step into his shoes as D.C. United's No. 1 goalkeeper during the preseason — something that should pay immediate dividends this weekend.
"It's almost been good that Bill has been gone in the preseason," D.C. coach Ben Olsen said. "(Willis has) gotten some looks being the first-team goalie. Joe will be fine. He'll relish this opportunity."
Olsen was quick not to tip his hand completely, stating in training on Tuesday that both Willis and Andrew Dykstra are viable candidates to fill Hamid's shoes this weekend. Dykstra, a former starter for the Chicago Fire who grew up in the D.C. area, has performed well with the club in the preseason and in training sessions.
"I think (Willis is) a leading candidate at this point," Olsen said. "We'll evaluate them all week. Andrew has looked fantastic. They both are capable goalkeepers."
The consensus, though, seems to be that it is Willis' job to lose while Hamid is on international duty. At 6-foot-5, the University of Denver product provides an imposing frame in goal, and his calm demeanor keeps him level-headed under pressure. His skillset varies greatly from that of Hamid, whose raw athleticism is matched by few in MLS.
"Bill's obviously a fantastic athlete," United goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad said. "He's more athletic than probably anyone in the league. At the same token for Joe, you're comparing apples to oranges. They're two different styles of athletes and goalkeepers."
Willis relies on his ability to read the game and reacts accordingly. While his game might lack the flash and sizzle that Hamid brings to the table, he inspires plenty of confidence in the United coaching staff and his teammates.
"His size and his presence in the box is very good," Onstad said. "He's mature beyond his years the way he commands his box, and I think that's one of his strengths. He has a great demeanor for the position. He doesn't get too high or too low.
"When he makes a good save he just gets on with it. When he makes a mistake he just gets on with it. That's an important attribute to have as a goalkeeper, and it's a lot easier said than it is done."
Onstad knows plenty about building a successful goalkeeping career, starring for the San Jose Earthquakes, the Houston Dynamo and the Canadian national team before retiring prior to last season. He briefly emerged from retirement to suit up for D.C. with Hamid sidelined and Willis not yet ready for primetime, but his biggest contribution to United has been further cultivating Hamid while helping Willis evolve into a better player.
"He's definitely helped me become a better goalkeeper," said Willis, who was used as a training goalkeeper during the U.S. national team's stop in D.C. for this past summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup. "The biggest thing about him is that he played the position at a high level for so long that he knows exactly what we're going through. He knows exactly what he wanted when he was a player, so he knows what we want as players."
Assuming he gets the nod against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday, it will mark Willis' fourth-career MLS start. With Hamid out during another juncture last season, Willis stepped in and performed admirably, starting three games and shutting out the Vancouver Whitecaps with a five-save effort on Aug. 13.
"He was confident he could do well." Onstad said. "More importantly, the team trusts him. When you have a couple games as a goalkeeper and the team believes in you, when you have a team fighting hard in front of you because they believe in you, it certainly helps the cause."
After Sunday's match against the Galaxy, D.C. faces the Whitecaps and FC Dallas prior to the Olympic qualifying campaign concluding. For Willis, the stretch provides a chance for him to — temporarily, anyway — reach his goal of becoming an MLS starting keeper. Whether these next few appearances act as an audition for other teams to take a look or for himself to solidify his place with D.C. should Hamid get sold to a European suitor down the line, the opportunity is certainly there.
"It's always been a goal of mine ever since I entered the league to eventually be a starting goalkeeper, so the aspirations are still there," Willis said. "I want to start in this league, and I'm going to do whatever I can to make that happen."